Can a bishop be held personally liable for child sexual abuse committed by a member of the clergy under their authority? The Victorian Court of Appeal has recently held that they can, in its decision in Bird v DP (a pseudonym)  VSCA 66 (3 April 2023) (“the Bird appeal decision“). That decision upheld an earlier trial decision to the same effect in DP (a pseudonym) v Bird  VSC 850 (22 December 2021), which I commented on previously here. In that earlier comment I suggested that there were reasons to conclude that the trial judge was wrong. In this comment I will be briefly noting why I continue to hold that view, and hence conclude that the Victorian Court of Appeal is also wrong, on the specific question of what is known as “vicarious liability”.
I want to stress that, despite my view that this decision is incorrect as a matter of Australian common law on the question of vicarious liability, I fully support churches being held liable for child abuse perpetrated by clergy who have been entrusted with the care of children. As I said in my previous post, my doubt about the decision on vicarious liability:
does not mean that I think that the organised church ought to be allowed to escape liability for harm committed by clergy to children in its care. To the contrary… I think the High Court ought to revisit another area of common law which prevents many such claims at the moment. But the decision in DP is not consistent with the course of development of the law of vicarious liability and will, in my judgment, be overturned if there is an appeal on this point
Clearly I was wrong about the appeal decision in Victoria. But I still maintain that the decision may be overturned if taken to the High Court of Australia. Below I briefly explain why.
In a decision handed down just prior to Christmas, DP (a pseudonym) v Bird  VSC 850 (22 December 2021), a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court ruled that the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Ballarat could be sued as vicariously liable for child sexual abuse committed by an assistant parish priest against the plaintiff DP when he was 5 years old (in 1971). The decision (as noted in a recent online press report) seems to be the first time a diocese has been found vicariously liable under common law principles for the actions of a priest, in Australia. In this note I will suggest that the reason for this is that the decision is wrong, as inconsistent with clear High Court of Australia authority. This does not mean that I think that the organised church ought to be allowed to escape liability for harm committed by clergy to children in its care. To the contrary, as explained below, I think the High Court ought to revisit another area of common law which prevents many such claims at the moment. But the decision in DP is not consistent with the course of development of the law of vicarious liability and will, in my judgment, be overturned if there is an appeal on this point.
The NSW Government is currently inviting comment on draft legislation entitled the Children’s Guardian Amendment (Child Safe Scheme) Bill 2020. The legislation has been drawn up in response to the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and as well as governing “secular” agencies caring for children, it will mandate a new scheme for child protection covering “religious bodies” (see cl 8AA definition of “child safe organisation”, para (c)). The Bill is generally a good idea, but I want to suggest one amendment which will be needed for it to properly protect religious freedom.
The High Court of Australia, in a unanimous verdict of a 7-member bench, has acquitted Cardinal George Pell of the charges of child sexual abuse for which he has been serving time in prison: see Pell v The Queen HCA 12 (7 April 2020). He was immediately released.
I have written an opinion piece on “The Conviction of Cardinal Pell” for the Gospel Coalition Australia website, for those who are interested in reflections on the case from a Biblical and legal perspective.